Retrieving – a versatile activity

Our canine companions need more than just physical activity. They also need activity that stimulates the brain, tasks that involve a mental challenge while also fitting their natural tendencies. Wouldn’t it be handy if there were an activity like this that could be integrated easily into everyday life, both at home and on the go?

Retrieving fits the bill. That’s one of the reasons this is such a good activity for dogs.

What is retrieving?

Retrieving is bringing something. The dog brings an object and puts it in the person’s hand, being sure to wait to fetch the object until the person requests it. Playing fetch with a dog with something like a ball or stick is not true retrieving.

Carrying prey is a natural behavior for dogs. After a successful hunt, their wild relatives carry off parts of the prey to eat in peace and quiet.  You will have seen your dog carrying around a toy or chew bone. The fact that our furry friends readily learn not to carry their “prey” off, but instead to bring it to their humans, is a result of domestication and targeted breeding. For many breeds of hunting dog, for example, it is a must for the dog not to claim game such as duck, pheasant, or rabbit for itself, but instead to bring it back intact and give it to its master.

Outside of hunting, of course, the dog doesn’t retrieve game. There are special objects designed for retrieving, such as dummies – a kind of burlap bag filled with granules – in various sizes and weights. There are also plastic dummies and dummies that can be filled with edible treats, but you can basically use anything the dog likes to carry.

Retrieving: pros

This kind of activity has a lot of positive aspects.

  • It’s very flexible. You can use it to keep your dog busy anywhere, anytime. Retrieving can be done indoors and out.
  • It doesn’t require a lot of special gear. All it takes is an object or objects to retrieve and treats to use as rewards.
  • During retrieving, the human and dog work together closely. This reinforces the bond between them.
  • Retrieving provides mental stimulus and physical activity.
  • Because the dog does not do the work until you ask for it, fundamental obedience and self-control are reinforced in the process. And that, in turn, has a positive effect on the rest of the dog’s day-to-day life.
  • Bringing objects is highly versatile, so it’s easy to tailor the tasks to your specific dog. One dog might like to run fast and far to get the object, while another is calmer in motion. One dog might enjoy searching the tall grass for a long time for the object to bring back, while another might be happier to find something fast. A workaholic dog wants to retrieve every day, while a more easygoing canine might prefer two or three times a week.

How the dog learns it

It’s easiest if your dog is in the mood for a nibble. Tasty tidbits and a good appetite help. At first, it’s important for your furry friend to learn to pick up the object right in front of you and put it in your hand. Only when it can do that does it make sense to have the dog retrieve something from farther away. A food dummy filled with tasty treats is the best way to teach picking something up and giving it to you.  The dog quickly learns that it will only get a treat as a reward if it puts the dummy in your hand. In the first little while, a leash helps to prevent the dog from running off with it.  The object the dog is supposed to retrieve is not thrown, but simply dropped or placed on the ground. Later on, too, a lot of practice goes into placing the dummy and not running after the dummy when it is thrown. The impetus for the dog to retrieve is supposed to come not from a flying object, but instead from the reward the dog gets when it has turned the object over.

Many facets

The world of retrieving offers infinite possibilities. For example, your furry friend can learn to retrieve the correct dummy in response to a hand signal from you if there are two dummies lying in opposite directions, even if the one it is supposed to bring is merely placed somewhere, while the other has been thrown enticingly. Or one might have been thrown farther, and you slowly approach it with your dog at your heel or walk away from it. You might also place a dummy in such a way that your dog gets to jump over a fallen log to get to it.  These are just a few examples from among the many possibilities. If you know someone else whose dog retrieves, you can also do fun things to train together.

Dogs can work well even on a longer leash, for example when the dummy is hidden in a big pile of leaves in front of you.


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